Never in the history of exploration has there been an undertaking quite like Apollo. Driven by wounded pride and the military threat implied by early Soviet space achievements, particularly the stunning flight of Yuri Gagarin, the Kennedy Administration and the Congress opened the public purse so that America could demonstrate its technological prowess to the world by achieving a lunar landing before the end of the 1960's and, more importantly, before the Russians. "No single space project," Kennedy said, "will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to achieve." At the program's budgetary peak in 1965, approximately 400,000 skilled people worked on the project, all of them eager to make the first lunar landing a reality. Many of them believed that Apollo was the most important thing they would ever do and they put in long hours to make sure of its success. Few of the four hundred thousand ever had a chance to travel in space and fewer still walked on the Moon; but most were deeply dedicated and, for them, working on Apollo was much more than a job. And if, from their perspective, the program ended too soon and, at that, on the sour note of missions canceled for lack of money, they still had the satisfaction of having been part of an historic undertaking.
Changes in human perspective usually come in small steps and, Apollo was a rare and extraordinary opportunity to make a purposeful leap. For many people in the program, Apollo was more than a race to beat the Russians; it was the start of an even grander enterprise. Commentators compared the first landings with the first steps by sea creatures onto the land and there were few in NASA who believed that Apollo was an end in itself.
As with the ancient colonization of the dry land by creatures from the sea, the long-term potential of the Moon and the rest of the Solar System will only be realized after we learn how to live and work in these new environments. Apollo was a start. Minute by minute, each of the Apollo crews enlarged the body of lunar work experience and added to the collection of geology samples. More than twenty years have passed since Apollo ended and, still, it may be quite some time before we return and it will be longer still before we are ready to build a permanent base, or to establish industries and settlements; but, in the interim, the geology samples and experiences of the astronauts are invaluable in planning for the next phase of lunar development.
In the years since Apollo, the geologic samples have told us a great deal about the local materials we will use for construction on the Moon and as feedstock for future lunar industries. And, as we think about designs for a lunar base, the experiences of the Apollo astronauts have much to tell us about the things that are difficult about working on the Moon and, as well, about the ways we can take advantage of lunar conditions - particularly the weak gravity field - to make the work easier.
Beyond the symbolism of the first landing, Apollo was, above all, a learning experience and, from mission to mission, the learning curve was steep. On Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent only two and a half hours outside their landing craft, proving that they could walk and work in the stiff pressure suits and in the vacuum and weak gravity that are the dominant features of the lunar environment. They set out three experiments, collected about 20 kilograms of rocks and soil and, as befitted the occasion, went about their work with considerable caution.
However, mission after mission, NASA as a whole - and the astronauts, in particular - gained confidence in themselves and in the equipment and learned how to get the work done more efficiently. By the time of the last three missions, crews were spending three days on the Moon and, out of each twenty-four hours, were staying outside and working hard for six to seven hours at a time. On the last mission, Apollo 17, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt set records for the longest work day (7 hours, 37 minutes); the longest total amount of time spent outside the spacecraft (22 hours, 4 minutes); the greatest quantity of samples brought back to Earth (110 kilograms); the farthest excursion away from a landing craft (7.5 kilometers); and the greatest total distance driven (35 kilometers). And, at least in Jack Schmitt's case, they may have even snatched the record for the longest and soundest sleep from the previous holders of all of these records - the crew of Apollo 16. On Apollo 11, Armstrong and Aldrin went about their work with appropriate caution; but, by the time of the last two missions, the astronauts were almost literally throwing themselves into their work. The learning curve was steep and the gains, from mission to mission, in productivity and scientific return were dramatic.
Had a high level of funding for the space program continued past the mid-1960's, NASA might soon have built a cargo-only version of the lunar lander and, perhaps by the mid-1970's, would have established a permanent base camp on the Moon. However the reality is that Apollo was a very expensive undertaking for its time and, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in an essay published during the week of Apollo 11, we had made such a great leap into space during the 60's that we needed a time of "consolidation", a period in which to assimilate the new technologies and the new perspectives. We needed to understand what it was we had done and what we had learned. That "we" didn't include the astronauts, who were eager to continue, and many other people inside NASA; but it certainly included most of the people - politicians and voters, alike - who would have to pay for the next stages.
Twenty-five years later, the debate over spending priorities continues and what is clear is that political support for a resumption of lunar operations has yet to emerge. But, as we prepare for the eventuality of a lunar base, of lunar industries, and of lunar settlement, there is much we can learn from the experiences of the Apollo crews. The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal has been prepared in the interest of making the experiences of the missions accessible to the people who will undertake the next stages of lunar development.
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